Well, I guess we did all we could. Not a bad year. Good election, bad World Series, that's the way it goes. But I'm going to take this last possible moment to give you my Big Final List.
Yeah, yeah, these things are a terrible cliché. But we need them, at least I know that I do. I’ve always been a sucker for a year-end list, if only because they’re so fun to sneer at. How could they leave off Donnie Darko / The Killers / Big Momma’s House II / [your favorite neglected masterpiece] we ask ourselves, and we feel like we’ve made some small stand. You can begin sneering at me in five minutes, as soon as you’ve read this. Sorry there aren't any pictures.
Camera Obscura Let’s Get Out of This Country
This list is going to have some obvious choices on it, the stuff that’s on everybody’s list, so I’ll start it off with a quirky one that’s maybe not particularly known. Though for me, this is a no-brainer. It’s quaint? And pretty? And Scottish? Belle & Sebastian protegés? Sign me up! Honestly, though, there weren’t many releases last year that gave me more simple pleasure, or made me sing quite so much like a lovelorn sixteen-year-old girl while washing the dishes. I will also take this opportunity to use the word “Glaswegian.” [A special nod to Matt C, who didn’t just recommend this album, he actually mailed it to my house.]
Belle & Sebastian The Life Pursuit
…and while we’re on the subject, here you go: not their best, but how could it be? This is hardly the same group that made If You’re Feeling Sinister at all, but they’re still a justly beloved institution, and they seem to only now be reaching the peak of their powers. The Life Pursuit is graceful and funny and soulful, and on songs like “Dress Up In You,” you can still hear the old bitter wistful charm.
Pernice Brothers Live A Little
Again, not their best, but so much better than other people. See my review elsewhere.
The Flaming Lips At War With the Mystics
Secure now in their transformation from vaguely punk-ish weirdos to inspirational postmodern hipster performance artists, the Flaming Lips release another solid collection of tunes. Not a great leap forward, maybe—the only twist seems to be a newfound sense of political irritation. (“Free Radicals,” “Haven’t Got a Clue,” and “The W.A.N.D,” can be read as some sort of anti-Bush trilogy.) But it’s all satisfying: “Pompeii A.M. Götterdämmerung,” is every bit as huge as the title requires; my only complaint is that it isn’t twelve minutes long. And “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion,” joins “Do You Realize???” and “Waitin’ For a Superman,” in their collection of what I have to call Uplifiting Death-Hymns, songs that dare to bluntly and cheerfully say that Everything is Not Going to Be Okay, but that somehow That’s Okay.
Granddaddy Just Like the Fambly Cat
Stupid title. And go ahead and skip the intro with the child asking about the cat over and over. I do. This is still a wonderful, sad, last collection from this dear departed California group. The basic formula never changed: thick sludgy guitar, silly childlike keyboards, and Jason Lytle’s tired Wayne Coyne-ish croon, singing about robots and trees. This might actually be their best album taken as a whole. “This is How It Always Starts,” shows everything they did right: the sweet washes of electronics, the swooning background vocals, and the bitter little lyric that soars off the ground without seeming to move a muscle. This is how it always ends, though. Too many good bands don’t make any money.
The Decemberists The Crane Wife
The Decemberists, on the other hand, seem to have had no trouble at all managing their career. They were nowhere five years ago, now they’re a world-bestriding colossus sporting a monocle and a cardigan. Luckily, they have the work to back up their every-magazine-cover ubiquity. I reviewed the record already. It’s good.
Sufjan Stevens The Avalanche
I’ve already used the word “ubiquity,” but here’s Sufjan again, everybody. He’s wormed his adorable banjo-plucking way into our hearts, and he’s here to stay. I gave his Christmas album to my mom. Yes, The Avalanche is supposed to be an outtakes album, like it says on the cover; it’s supposed to be leftovers from the Illinois record. But it’s still seventy minutes long, and it still made my top ten. There’s filler, sure—you can probably skip most of the instrumental stuff and two of the three additional versions of “Chicago.” Enough great songs are left to make you shake your head—Illinois was freakin’ long to begin with. This guy must drink a lot of coffee. Anyway, banjos, flutes, pianos, you know the drill by now. Listen to “The Mistress Witch From McClure,” and “No Man’s Land,” definitely. Then ask yourself: how many albums will California take?
Thom Yorke The Eraser
He’s a reasonable man; get off his case! I think everybody who might read this probably has The Eraser already. Radiohead has occupied their frosty, unapproachable place in our canon for so long that there was no way we could ignore this record. But that didn’t mean it had to be good. It is. We can mock Yorke all we want for being prickly and paranoid, not to mention hideous to behold, but he’s really honestly the real deal both as a singer and a writer. Even when he was singing alt-rock ballads in 1993, there was a unique, unstable tinge to how he sang “I want you to notice when I’m not around,” or “Can’t afford to breathe in this town.” Now that he’s surrounded himself with computers and keyboards, his face looking sickly in the pale light of his PowerBook, he sounds more in his element than ever. This is emphatically not an album of self-indulgent electronic noodling, any more than Kid A was back when people were complaining about it. These are actual songs, despite or even because of all the whirring and bleeping and clicking, songs with real, painful emotion in them. Listen to “Atoms For Peace”—I hear “no more going to the dark side with your flying-saucer eyes” and I remember 1995’s “Black Star,” and its same sense of helplessness in the face of someone else’s collapse. (“I get home from work and you’re still standing in your dressing gown…”) “Skip Divided,” isn’t catchy, but it hisses with menace, with Yorke’s threatening murmur “when you walk in the room I follow you around like a dog.” “Harrowdown Hill,” it turns out, is about the death of UK Defence Ministry official David Kelly, and it seems to endorse the conspiracy theory that he was killed by the Blair government for blowing the whistle on the exaggeration of the threat posed by Iraq. Is that important? Probably not, and it’s probably not true, anyway. Before I knew all that, I knew that song had an arresting sort of grief to it—it was clear enough that it was about somebody dying. Nothing to fear, nothing to doubt.
Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Before this year, I mainly knew Neko Case from her singing with polite Canadians the New Pornographers, on whose records she stood out like a flashing red light. The songs were fairly consistent—wordy, ultra-clever, and polished to a high gloss. But singing these songs, you had two white guys—two Canadian guys—with standard inoffensive indie-rock voices, but then occasionally you had this woman, with her voice like a megaphone. She was their secret weapon! I knew she was actually American, and that she had a career of her own, but I didn’t really care until this record got so much praise. Turns out it was deserved. Besides the singing, the songs are solid almost all the way through, with some remarkably intricate, literate lyrics. Just listen to the first song, “Margaret Vs Pauline,” with its “girl with the parking lot eyes,” whose “jaw aches from wanting.” And then the black sting in the tail of it; it was a tiny little breathtaking moment for me. It’s all like that.
The Hold Steady Boys and Girls In America
Here it is, the worst Hold Steady album ever. I’m only about one-quarter joking. If you’ve heard Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday (and here the nod goes to this guy, who gave me illicit copies of them,) then you know what I mean. Otherwise…well, just imagine a whole lot of 1970’s-era classic rock—Springsteen, AC/DC, Thin Lizzy—but with some guy growling an enormous quantity of very carefully thought-out words over it, words about teenagers, and drugs, and Billy Joel, and Jesus. This sounds like a terrible idea, but you have to hear it. And no, this album isn’t as viscerally satisfying as the other two, but that’s only because they were trying some things. The tunes got bigger, occassionally reaching near-Meatloaf levels. (One reviewer came right out and said “Sal Paradise by the dashboard light,” and I wanted to smack myself in the head. Why didn’t I think of that?) The production got bigger—they’ve been saddled with the label of the World’s Greatest Bar Band, and this album seems to be blasting out of the World’s Greatest Bar P.A. And the subject matter got a tiny bit lighter—the characters in “Chillout Tent,” just want to hook up at a concert, and they probably won’t even end up dead or in rehab. (Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum sings! Yikes!) One girl (in “Chips Ahoy,”) has a supernatural ability to pick the winner of horse races—but her boyfriend is irritated because he “can’t tell if she’s having a good time.” That's a shame.
But it gets plenty heavy, too—the Minnesota poet John Berryman kills himself in the opening song. (“He loved the Golden Gophers but he hated all the drawn-out winters.”) The snarling “Same Kooks,” is another missing piece of the Separation Sunday song cycle, with its stupid wasted Catholic kids moaning that “it’s hard to feel holy when you can’t get clean.” And “First Night” feels like the final end of that story, an epilogue or valediction. It leaves Charlemagne and Holly (from the first two albums) shaking in the streets and crying in the hospital, respectively, and leaves the singer trying to remember what they all used to look like when they first met. This sounds horribly sentimental if you haven’t heard all these songs; if you have, then you’re already sort of choked up thinking about it. It’s going to be okay. Just remember what somebody (Holly?) said to Berryman—“you’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life.”
Honorable Mentions—Band of Horses is good. (One reviewer called it “the Shins deep fried in My Morning Jacket.” The metaphor police have been notified and are proceeding on foot.) The Long Winters is good. Mogwai is good. Morrissey, bless his heart, had some good songs. The Raconteurs, sure, sure, fine, whatever.
Best Design: The Eraser (Fancy woodcuts!) Worst: Boys and Girls in America, ironically. What’s up with that cover?
Second Best Title On an Album I Didn’t Listen To: Return to Cookie Mountain, by TV On the Radio.
And the Best: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass by Yo La Tengo. What, twenty years into their career and they’re still filled with rage? They’re talkin’ to you, Sonic Youth!